To Bring Back Briar (Part 1)

A Trip to Greece

by Mark Tinsky

Many of the questions posed when I meet people that smoke my pipes concern the briar that I use to make Americans. Since I can't meet all of my customers in person, I have prepared this series of photos that I took on a buying trip to Greece.

The wood blocks that pipes are made of are cut from the burl of the briar bush, scientific name Erica arborea, which is part of the Heath family. These bushes are generally under 10 feet high and the burl grows at ground level, the trunk of the bush growing up and the roots growing down. Briar grows in the arid, agriculturally unproductive land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The best briar available today comes from Greece. Algeria was a source for many years, but over harvesting and the ravages of World War II ended this.

Because of its severe habitat, briar grows very slowly. A marketable burl must be 40 years old before it can be harvested. Larger pipes would require an older burl. Larger burls from 100-year-old briars are becoming exceedingly hard to find. This is compounded by the fact that all easily accessible sources of briar have been used up and the back breaking labor of digging up burls must be accomplished without the help of power tools. Young workers are less inclined to do this hard work and find employment in the cities to be more remunerative and much easier.

Once the burls are dug up, they must be protected from drying out until they can have what little sap which is in them removed by boiling. The burls are placed in piles and covered by briar branches.


Then they can be transported, with mules, to the briar-cutting factory. Once there they are placed in heaps and are constantly watered to keep them from drying out.

The burls are next taken into the cutting room where the cutters perform their amazing task.

The burls, which have been constantly wet since being dug, are by now very slippery and irregularly shaped. The cutters sit before open saw blades and, working without any guards or safety devices, proceed to cut the burls into blocks



Why more of these courageous workmen are not missing fingers is a mystery. While they are working, the cutters have in mind what kind of block they want to end up with. Plateaux blocks are cut from the outer section of the burl with the rough natural surface left on the top of the block. This will yield the fine straight grain much prized by collectors. If the cutter is concerned only with a block of less quality, called an ebauchon, he is no longer concerned about grain direction but only with getting the largest block possible. Blocks cut for plateaux are much more wasteful, and this is one reason why they are so expensive.


American Smoking Pipe Co.
HC 88 Box 223
Pocono Lake, Pa. 18347

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